Every December brings a post or two (or three) about the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Teachers College of Columbia University in Manhattan. It is one of the most meaningful events of the year for me.
HumanDHS is a transdisciplinary, global network of educators, writers, activists, artists, practitioners, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experiences of humiliation in society. The annual New York workshop typically includes a mix of these activities:
- “Pre-planned dignilogues” with invited participants giving very short presentations (seven minutes!) about work they’re doing to advance human dignity;
- “Co-created dignilogues” comprised of small group discussions on topics selected by workshop participants, culminating in short presentations shared with the full group;
- A mix of extended talks, award presentations, and musical performances, along with break and lunch periods that foster a lot of individual conversations and connections.
This year’s just-completed gathering was a deeply engaging experience, grounded in a spirit of learning and fellowship. I’ve been participating in this workshop for around ten years, and they’ve all been good experiences. But for some reason this one had an unusually personal meaning to me. And I came away with valuable insights and knowledge, some of which I’ll be sharing in posts soon to come. Equally important, it was heartwarming to connect and reconnect with fellow workshop participants.
The general theme of this year’s workshop was “What is the language of dignity?” In keeping with the theme, during my brief dignilogue presentation, I drew upon two recent blog posts, “Dignity work” (November 2018) and “Instead of ‘weaponize,’ let’s ‘dignitize’” (December 2018), to invite us to think about how we work and talk about dignity in our daily lives.
Dignitizing conferences and workshops
When it comes to recurring conferences and similar events, I’m more likely to return to those that engage both my heart and mind — fueled by interactions with fellow participants who make such events rewarding, while hoping that I can contribute in the same way. My short list includes:
- This workshop, as well as smaller HumanDHS get-togethers in New York City;
- Therapeutic jurisprudence events, such as small workshops held in North America, e.g., 2016 in Toronto, and the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, which includes a dedicated stream of TJ-related panels, e.g., 2015 in Vienna;
- The biennial “Work, Stress, and Health” conference co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology, e.g, a memorable 2015 conference in Atlanta that was the subject of my guest contribution, “Conferences as Community Builders,” to the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog; and,
- Conferences sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research, e.g., 2017 in the Bay Area.
In sum, I’m drawn to events that aspire to dignitize and enlighten those who attend and participate, rather than the other way around.
Paying attention to conferences
I think we need to pay greater attention to the role of conferences in sharing and disseminating knowledge and creating networks and communities.
All too often, conferences are simply competitive marketplaces. In his 2017 book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities, Donald Nicolson offers “the argument that academic conferences are a (neoliberal) commodity; that is, they are something of use/value, being bought and sold.” Building on this point, he asserts that conferences serve as marketplaces for knowledge, compete with other conferences for attention and participation, and reinforce the core notions of the neoliberal academy.
I find these tendencies especially in play at the flagship conferences of academic and professional disciplines, replete with individual and collective status obsessions and insecurities and varying airs of superiority, ambition, striving, and desperation. The unhealthy cultures of these events can be exhausting to witness, engage, and navigate. They can be impersonal, stiff, and cold. Some involve a lot of “badge watching,” whereby the perceived prestige of one’s institutional affiliation equates with an individual’s worthiness. Others are simply dull and disengaging.
Three years ago I wrote an essay on the value of smaller academic gatherings that allow for genuine interaction on a human scale (“Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which may be freely accessed here). I’m more convinced than ever before that conferences should serve a community-building purpose. In such settings, shared knowledge and insights can create even deeper understanding, and the associated human connections are enriched in the process.